An Interview with Frances Pinter


As the December News Update mentioned, Knowledge Unlatched has spent the last six months working hard to explain its approach to publishers, libraries, research funders and intermediaries.  Frances has been spearheading our efforts: speaking at major library events like the Charleston Conference in the US, presenting Knowledge Unlatched at the 4th Annual Conference on Open Access Publishing in Budapest, Hungary and traveling as far afield as Guadalajara, Mexico to introduce the model at the University and Academic Press International Forum.

I managed to pin Frances down for an interview that we could post on our own News site last week.  In it she speaks about her own background and what has motivated her to set up Knowledge Unlatched and tackles bigger questions about how ubiquitous access to knowledge might be achieved.  She also talks about some of the finer points of the Knowledge Unlatched model. We hope that the transcript (below) will answer a few questions and provide insight into what Knowledge Unlatched is attempting to achieve and where it might fit within a wider publishing ecosystem.

Lucy: You’ve been an academic publisher throughout most of your professional career, though you’ve also worked for George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. Some people describe you as a serial entrepreneur, and others as a social entrepreneur. How do you bring these two threads together?

Frances: I’ve always been passionate about disseminating knowledge, but I know that there is no such thing as cost free publishing. So I look for sustainable ways of making the business of publishing serve the needs of scholarly communications.  Long before the Internet I focused on the cutting edge of academic disciples and making sure that the books were as widely distributed around the world as possible. I published books with titles like ‘The Future with Microelectronics and The Future of the Printed Word’ thirty-odd years ago. Now we’re watching the digital future unfold and it’s terribly exciting to be part of it.

Lucy: For you, what is the most important thing that needs addressing to make access to knowledge ubiquitous?

Frances: There are lots of things that need to change. We could use some changes in copyright laws, but even without that there is much we can do. We need to understand a lot more about how digital might help improve the quality of education. Personally, I’ve been focusing on the sector where I’ve had the most experience – academic publishing.

What we really need here is to change the way we fund the publishing of quality content. And to do this we need to make changes in the relationships between stakeholders in the scholarly communications ecosystem. That’s what got me thinking about the value chain between author and reader and everyone in the middle. Knowledge Unlatched is an attempt to change some of that and create more efficient and effective access to scholarly outputs. But it is not the only possible model. Others are looking at how to solve this problem too.

Lucy: What is Knowledge Unlatched?

Frances: Knowledge Unlatched is a not-for-profit company registered in the UK and operating globally. It is creating an international consortium of libraries to secure collective payments to bring titles to first digital publication. At the same time it will enable member libraries to purchase print books and premium formatted e-books at discounted prices. Publishers will, in exchange for this secure payment, which we call the Title Fee, post the books on open access licenses.

Lucy: What is Knowledge Unlatched aiming to achieve?

Frances: KU’s vision is a system that enables the sustainable and cost efficient publishing of scholarly books (or long form publications, as they are now being called) and uses open access licenses to make books more effective in a digital context. It should first and foremost serve the needs of the users. This includes the academic community but goes beyond that group alone. Open access breaks down financial barriers to access and helps to ensure that the impact of good, well published books is maximized.

So, the task at hand is to create a global library consortium that will pay the fixed costs, or what is also referred to as getting to first digital file costs for quality professional publishing services, so that books can be made open access without the need for ongoing subsidies and so that open access can play a role in helping the whole system to operate more efficiently. There is no need for new money to do this – it’s just about using the existing book budgets more cost effectively.

Lucy: Why create a library consortium to do this?

Frances: When I asked myself the question who pays for monographs now, the answer I realised was university libraries (primarily but not exclusively research libraries).  So I tried to figure out a more cost-effective way of using those budgets and achieve open access. Libraries like working in consortia – so we’re building on known processes.

Lucy: Are there any aspects that are similar to things librarians are already doing?

Frances: Knowledge Unlatched has certain features that are like a Demand Driven Acquisition program, which many libraries are already experimenting with. However, the first step of purchasing books in the Knowledge Unlatched model requires libraries to make a contribution to the fixed costs of publishing the book so that libraries can, collectively, ensure that the books that they want in their collections become open access.  The contribution that libraries make to the fixed costs of publishing books that they would value in their collections will be significantly less than buying a closed book. Then if the library wishes to do so it can purchase any premium edition at a special discount.

Knowledge Unlatched needs to have enough library members sharing the fixed costs of publishing each title to ensure that the costs to each individual library are affordable – so scale is important. But libraries should be able to buy into this approach at a lower price than they would have to pay for content purchased on a closed model, which is why it will work.

The ultimate prize is that by participating in this collective action approach libraries will play a role in making open access books available to everyone – for a price that is less than they are paying now for closed books.

Lucy: How will the fee that will be paid to publishers (that which is collected by libraries) to cover the fixed costs of publishing a book be set?

Frances: Publishers are being asked to include their outgoing costs for selection, peer review, editing, typesetting, design, marketing and then to add on an overhead element that reflects their real costs in managing the process.

Lucy: What format will the open access version take?

Frances: The open access version will be posted online in html or flat PDF. Premium versions such as the printed book, EPUB, tablet and ereader editions will continue to be sold through the normal channels.

Lucy: Why have you chosen monographs? Would this work for other types of books too?

Frances: Knowledge Unlatched is, in effect, crowd-sourcing the funds to pay for the publishing service, so that books can be made available on open access licenses. In this case, the ‘crowd’ is a small crowd: libraries (who sometimes work with faculty members to choose books). We think that this approach will maximize its positive impact on the whole monograph system by ensuring that there is a balance between up front payment for a particular format (the open access version) and potential for publishers to make money by selling physical copies and innovative premium digital versions. In the case of what would otherwise be short-run high priced books this model has the potential to have a very big impact on access and discoverability and to help existing markets to operate more efficiently.

I can’t judge whether it would work for other kinds of books, but I do think its worth experimenting with different ways to move away from the wasteful one-by-one selling of digital products that simply emulates the business model of the printed format. That approach isn’t always necessary or efficient for content that goes online.

Lucy: OK, so Knowledge Unlatched is dealing with a specific type of academic book, but why would publishers see this as a good thing?

Frances: By having their origination costs covered up front the risk to the publisher is reduced. It will allow them more flexibility in pricing and formats. The open version will act as the marketing piece for the premium versions. In watching the metrics on the open version they’ll be able to see what is being read, what areas are popular and which less so. This will become an increasingly important part of market research.

Editors will be happier too. They want to help their authors to connect with audiences more effectively.  And Knowledge Unlatched is contributing to finding sustainable ways of transitioning to open access, which many publishers are also searching for.

Lucy: I can see why this would be good for the world, but why would a library buy into this?

Frances: University librarians are telling me that this fits in with their migration from collection to connection. They’ll be making a real contribution to global scholarly communications by participating in Knowledge Unlatched. And because they’ll have the option of buying into the open version only, they will be able to be more selective about what they buy in premium formats.

We’re constructing the model so that members will get a sufficient discount on the total costs of the premium versions to make it worth their while to be members. Most large research libraries will still want the premium version. And if that proves not to be the case it is still likely that print books will be cheaper as these won’t need to carry the fixed costs.

Lucy: You’re setting up new workflows. What are people most worried about when it comes to implementation?

Frances: Timing is an issue, but manageable. Publishers will need to give libraries enough lead time to take decisions and libraries will need to make their commitments early enough so that publishers can set prices on their premium editions based on whether their books got enough buy-in to be unlatched.

Lucy: Do you see this as bringing cost savings to the whole process of academic book publishing?

Frances: Yes, I do. The costs of keeping books closed and setting up all the processes required to sell one unit at a time are huge. We need to find ways of reducing these intermediary costs.  Worrying less about non-commercial usage will squeeze costs out of the system.

Lucy: Is this an altruistic project or will libraries get some tangible benefits.

Frances: Well, of course, we’d all like to been seen as doing ‘the right thing’, but library budgets are too stretched to argue the case for Knowledge Unlatched on that basis. Libraries will definitely see a reduction in the amount they pay for these books. Even if they buy premium versions of every title on offer they will pay less per book because of the discounts we’ve negotiated on their behalf.

Lucy: What about the preservation of the digital copy?

Frances: Most publishers are now lodging their publications with one of the main digital preservation services. However, if they aren’t already doing so we’ll help them get started with the books in this program.

Lucy: Why did you decide to make this an international library consortium?

Frances: It spreads the costs across a larger number of libraries. The burden is more fairly carried around the world. AND the more libraries that join up the lower the contribution from each to the Title Fee. In the new world of connecting rather than collecting we can foresee benefits of making open a global effort.

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